The Afghan handshake

Nearly a decade ago in Peshawar, a holy warrior tried to warn me where radical Islam was heading -- then gave me his watch.

Published November 21, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

Almost a decade ago, while candidate Bill Clinton was in the midst of promising information superhighways, high-velocity trains and German-engineered interstates, I was a 22-year-old freelance reporter promising that very same America to an Algerian I had come to know as Abdul Aziz. I called him Abdul Aziz as everyone else I know did, but we all knew, and he freely admitted, that this was a nom de guerre and that he could not share his real name with us. He had a nom de guerre because we were in Peshawar, Pakistan, just across the border from Afghanistan, where he had come to help wage holy war against the Russians three years earlier.

"When I was your age," he began to tell me, "I could think of nothing but Afghanistan. Every day in Algiers I ate, drank, slept Afghanistan." I found myself with something of an older brother. It didn't matter that he looked nothing like me with his black beard, olive skin and the pajama-like salwar kameez clothing he wore. We were driving to the tribal areas of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, right at the lip of the Khyber Pass and the Afghan border. The tribal areas are a true free market. Once you had passed the last police checkpoint, you weren't really anymore in Pakistan, but you weren't quite in Afghanistan. You could hire an assassin (the rates for killing started at $80 a head and went up from there for particularly famous or powerful targets), buy automatic weapons, opium or hashish -- but only by the kilo. My desires were simpler. I wanted to get a duty-free shortwave radio to catch up on the American presidential campaign.

"The first time I tried to come to Afghanistan through London, and the British sent me home after a week in jail," Aziz continued. "The second time I went through Istanbul and made it." He went on to explain that when his family received a letter with a postmark from Peshawar, the staging ground for most of the Arab and American war efforts, they were arrested. His father had been detained in southern Algeria for almost a year, and his brother, who also wore a beard that mimicked the prophet Mohammed's -- required fashion among fundamentalists -- remained imprisoned in the Saharan desert to the day. Aziz could not return to his Algerian homeland except to face sure execution: Anyone who had come to Afghanistan -- the breeding ground of jihadi warriors -- was sure to mean trouble for the secular, authoritarian government, and having been in Peshawar meant a death sentence if Aziz returned.

Over the course of our friendship, Aziz explained to me that he still believed in the righteousness of an Islamic state but had since renounced violence as a means. He thought that such a government would only be truly Islamic if democratically elected. He told me of his new dream, to return to Algeria with his message of Islamic democracy.

"The Sharia [Islamic law] cannot be imposed on people who do not want it," he said -- a reversal rarely seen in one-time holy warriors. Jews and Christians, he added, retained a special place in such a society as people of the book -- monotheists in the Judeo-Christian tradition from which Islam arose. He said such minority religious groups would still be allowed to practice. "The harshness of Islam here among the Pashtun is not because of Islam, it is because this is a tribal society."

"Would Jewish and Christian women have to wear the chador?" I asked him. "Would I be able to drink?"

"Everyone has to obey Muslim law, but they can still practice their own religion."

"What if there were inherent conflicts between the practices?" I asked. "What about atheists, Hindus, others? What is the role of the press in such a society?" I had so many questions, and my doubts about his vision were like a creeping black cloud.

"How much for these in New York City?" he asked back, ignoring my barrage and pointing to the Ray Ban Wayfarers he wore. We parked the car, and he handed a 10 rupee note to an old man with a turban, a white beard and a Kalashnikov rifle as payment for guarding the vehicle while we did our shopping.

"I don't know how much they cost," I said impatiently. I always bought my sunglasses for $5 on Canal Street, but I knew this wasn't the answer he was looking for. "Maybe $40?" I wanted to give a price that made America seem slightly more reasonable to the rest of the world, that seemed possible and full of hope, not the daunting $150 I actually suspected real Ray Bans cost at the time.

"Here in the tribal areas," he said, "$8." He smiled proudly. Every electronic item we passed, he asked for an American quote from me. I had no idea how much most things cost and raised and lowered my prices along with Aziz's dark eyebrows, which went up and down in expressions of shock or relief at the various figures I offered.

He had introduced me to other devout Muslims who'd become disillusioned with the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi, the two main organizations that backed Arab fighters in Afghanistan at the time. Underneath stadium bleachers, young men showed me the scars of torture they had endured at the hands of their former colleagues. "You see," Aziz explained to me, "I cannot stay here either; since I have left the Brotherhood, they will kill me eventually." As I stared at his friend's blistered legs, my mind flashed to the pornographic magazines I had found under Aziz's cot one evening. What about porn in your Islamic state? I wondered now. The struggle between fundamentalism and decadence was not just between civilizations; it was within each of us. I was staring at the visible scars of this struggle, but there were just as many invisible, mental scars that I felt around me.

With the Russians defeated and the Afghan mujahedin groups fighting amongst themselves, most of the Arabs were going off to do battle elsewhere. They were either crossing the border into Indian Kashmir or Chinese Turkmenistan or shuttling through Sudan, getting false documents there, and then heading to other destinations in the Middle East or even the U.S. He told me there were Muslim rebels as far east as the Philippines and as far west as Los Angeles.

Aziz explained how the financing worked, that rich Saudis and other Gulf Arabs paid a lot of money to come to training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan, to learn how to play war for a couple weeks. Between this and money that the Saudi government paid to keep the fundamentalist troublemakers occupied elsewhere, they had no shortage of funding. He claimed that the musician Cat Stevens -- by then Yousef Islam -- also supported the exportation of the jihad through a puppet relief organization. (Islam has denied this.)

It all seemed logical when he told me, so I went ahead and wrote up a story query and a draft of an article on the Muslim war machine; I promised Aziz half of whatever money I got from the endeavor. "I do not want money," he explained to me. "I just saw a movie last night, 'The Killing Fields,' about an American journalist that helps a Cambodian out of his country. That is what would be more important to me, getting out of here alive."

Sometimes, we would plan his escape to America. I told him maybe I could find a woman who would marry him; he was willing to forsake the mail-order bride he had imported from Tunisia, who was even more conservative than he. I told him that if we could just get him a tourist visa, he could petition for political asylum when he arrived. Together, we even fantasized about going to Mexico and then crossing the border along with the thousands of fruit pickers and other migrant laborers.

After we found my radio, he turned to me and undid his watch. He handed me the Russian timepiece, with its iridescent olive-green face and Cyrillic writing, tachometer and even a compass. I had never asked whether he had killed anyone during his time across the border in the jihad, and he never mentioned it one way or the other. He handed me the watch, ostensibly as a souvenir of my time there, but more likely a reminder not to forget him and the grand plans we had made for his entry into the U.S. When I silently took the Red Army officer's watch and fastened it on my own wrist, I wondered if it came from a soldier he had killed or merely from some shop there in the tribal areas, where it seemed that all of the former Soviet Union was on special in the biggest fire sale the world had witnessed. When I had fastened its leather strap, he shook my hand and looked me in the eye deeper than ever before. His grip tightened.

A couple months after I had been back in the States, a mutual friend of Aziz's and mine came through town. He told me that Aziz had been arrested by the Pakistanis on the charge of murder, but that he was being framed. It all seemed so unreal to me. I had started graduate school and an all-consuming love relationship. I even began to doubt the veracity of the Islamic jihad network Aziz had meticulously described to me over many cups of bitter green tea. Time magazine had bought my story but never ran it. I gave our mutual friend a check for half the money I had received for the reporting. Since I did not know Aziz's real name and was certain he did not have a bank account, I wrote the check out to the friend and asked him to pass the cash onto Aziz. "It will help him out in his legal battle," he said and folded it into his breast pocket.

I followed Aziz's legal tribulations by phone through other mutual acquaintances. He was eventually released, and I lost track of him; or rather, I never made any further attempts to keep up with him. A little while after that, I received my canceled check along with a bank statement. It had gone through several financial institutions, ranging from BCCI to Barclay's in London. Around the same time, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing occurred. The newly elected President Clinton mourned the dead and vowed swift justice. I had been working in the next building over that day, and while I did not feel the explosion itself, I felt a jolt when I found out about it, thinking: Maybe he was right about everything he told me, maybe it's time to wake up. When I got home that day, I took off the watch and put it in a drawer. Over the next few years, I read articles here and there that suggested a lot of what Aziz had told me was true. Then on Sept. 11, 2001, almost nine years to the day since I last saw Aziz, I knew everything he told me was fact. I only wish I could find him again. He is just the type of person America -- not to mention Afghanistan and the Arab world -- needs right now.

By Dalton Conley

Dalton Conley is University Professor and Professor of Sociology and Medicine at New York University. He is currently chair of the Children and Youth Section of the American Sociological Association. A Guggenheim fellow, Conley is also the first sociologist to receive the National Science Foundation’s Alan T. Waterman Award for best young research in any field. He lives in New York City.

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Afghanistan Islam Pakistan Religion